In the last post in the Technology in Modern Foreign Languages series, I set out to make a case for the use of social networking in education based on my own experience using microblogging with my classes over the past year.
According to Wikipedia, microblogging is a form of multimedia blogging that allows users to send short text updates or micromedia such as photos, video or audio clips and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. The fact that these updates can be sent to a restricted group is an essential consideration in the context of education and online safety. Essentially, microblogging is the purpose for which the vast majority of students use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or, increasingly, microblogging services such as Twitter.
In the absence of an institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), social networking online can be used as an extension to classroom teaching and as a tool to encourage communication and inquisitiveness among students, with the overarching objective of enhancing teaching and learning of by improving both teacher-student and student-student communication, and, in so doing, bridging the home-school divide.
The advent of what we adults call Web 2.0 -I say this because, to our students, Web 2.0 is the web- has brought us a myriad of tools with considerable educational potential that the education establishment would be unwise to overlook or disparage. Old fashioned ICT -word processing, powerpoint presentations and desktop applications in general- has often been demonstrated to motivate students.
However, the bright, colourful, engaging and intuitive world of Web 2.0 has opened new possibilities to encourage creativity (photo and video sharing and editing sites), promote participation (social networking sites) and improve access to information (social book-marking sites) in ways which we are only beginning to understand. Sharing and collaborating can be redefined as the main characteristics of the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon, as opposed to its earlier, more static incarnation.
There is no doubt that, although my students might be blissfully unaware of the term Web 2.0, they are all familiar with the concept behind it: creating content, sharing, collaborating and networking online. In fact, social networking online has rapidly become the principal means of communication for the current generation of teenagers.
Social networking is, after all, what they do on their mobile phones and other hand-held devices under their desks when we teachers are not looking. This is what they do as soon as they get home from school.
Many will argue that most students are just wasting their time and gossiping online but, whatever anyone’s opinion on the benefits or dangers of social networking is, it cannot be denied that they are all sharing, collaborating and networking and they are doing so in a way which they enjoy and find engaging, otherwise they simply would not do it.
More and more people, not just our students, are becoming aware of the power of belonging to a network: each individual member contributes a small part, so that the resulting body of knowledge is much greater than that which any individual member could have amassed on their own. This is why the social internet has become so successful: groups of people have clumped together forming networks, generally because of some sort of affinity or shared interest, and have started communicating and passing on information that matters to them. Social and Personal networks, fora, blogs and microblogs have become the narrow end of the funnel through which a seemingly chaotic maelstrom of voices is poured, resulting in a steady flow of meaningful and relevant information.
My pupils may well not be consciously aware of this or familiar with the word that describes the activity in which they love to engage: microblogging. However, they are extremely well versed with the concept the word microblogging encapsulates: brief updates, photo and video sharing, tagging and poking.
They are communicating with each other on an unprecedented scale, spending more and more time in front of a computer screen with multi-player games, email, the Internet and instant messaging becoming an ever more integral part of their lives. The rising importance and availability of online social networks and their popularity among young people in particular cannot be dismissed, putting the use of ICT at the heart of 21st century interconnectivity in all areas of society, not just education.
Pedagogy, in my opinion, needs to reflect these social changes and conform to the needs and expectations of today’s students and, if we teach them in a way that mirrors how they live their lives when they are not in school, if we help to ensure that the gap between their school life and real life is minimised, we then become better able to guarantee the commitment and engagement of the vast majority of our students.
Motivation and engagement are often seen as the holy grail of language teaching. Lack of motivation resulting in disengagement continues to be a big problem for language teachers, which helps to explain, in my view, why they have traditionally been early adopters of new technologies: first tapes and overhead projectors, then CDs, DVDs and digital data projectors. More recently, widely available internet access has heralded the arrival of the next logical stage in the evolution of the language teacher: the connected teacher.
My challenge was therefore to provide my students with the means to communicate with their teachers and with each other in a way which they would find both attractive and natural, fitting in with their technological expectations and making use of the skills they already possessed whilst, at the same, time adding value to their education.
Using a microblogging service which looked and felt like those already in use by my students would, in theory, allow teachers to enter their territory and continue to bring education to them wherever they happened to be through their computers and portable devices. I felt it was important to bring access to language learning opportunities from home and, therefore, started to look for a way in which I could bridge the gap between school and home (by home I really mean not school) by tapping into the potential offered by social networking in terms of catalysing student’s interest, therefore making the most of the positive attitudes my students displayed towards Computer Mediated Communication (CMC).
Using ICT with a focus on the C for Communication is, in my view, the next logical step and would allow us to bring the learning online and to blend the use of traditional tools such as textbooks or dictionaries with more up-to-date, relevant and authentic multimedia materials from the web. Microblogging would provide teachers and students with a platform in which they could interact beyond the constraints of the school walls, and with which the teacher could provide further personalised feedback and support.
Effective use of ICT in education is, in my view, the key to personalised learning: it increases learners’ access to resources and support and helps to motivate the most reluctant learners to practise complex skills and achieve more than they would have done through other, more traditional means, thus benefiting those who do not generally do well in formal contexts.
Being able to contact the teacher electronically and in private to ask for help or clarification without fear of peer pressure or ridicule would help engage the hard-to-reach students and leaves the door wide open to new ways of personalising and differentiating tuition. On the other hand, those students who are engaged and doing well would relish the opportunity to obtain extension materials, designed to stretch the more able, delivered directly to their own social network wall in their computer screen.
After having considered using Facebook groups and Twitter, I opted for a specialist microblogging service named Edmodo, which had been designed to be used specifically in an educational context. Twitter was discarded on the grounds that it offered a very limited service of 140 character long messages sent to a group of users, called tweets, or direct messages of equal length sent to individual users. Facebook was rejected after consulting our students and arriving at the conclusion that they might see our use of Facebook for educational purposes as an intrusion into their privacy, therefore negating any possible benefits obtained by using this medium. I got the distinct feeling that our students wanted to keep work and play separate.
Edmodo, on the other hand, was clearly for school work, an aspect which appealed greatly to my students. However, it still looked and felt like their beloved Facebook. Upon signing up to the service students and teachers are told what the purpose of Edmodo is: ‘A private social platform for teachers and students to share ideas, files, events and assignments’.
A distinction is also made upon signing up between students and teachers. Teachers are able to set up classes and groups (for which Edmodo generates a unique alpha-numerical code) set and collect assignments, send alerts, link to online resources, attach documents and embed audio visual material. When students log on to Edmodo for the first time, they are prompted to enter the unique code generated for their class and thus both teacher and student accounts become linked and the can begin communication privately and safely.
My students immediately understood the purpose of Edmodo and embraced its simplicity, and ease of use. As it is often pointed out, a website should not make the user think as far as usability is concerned. However, the feedback we kept receiving again and again from students was that Edmodo was just such a convenient service. Convenience, rather than ease of use, turned out to be the key to the adoption of Edmodo by my students as their preferred means of keeping track of assignment deadlines and communication with their teacher.
Students, by and large, embraced Edmodo as a useful, time saving tool which helped them keep on top of their work and communicate with teachers when their help was most needed, that is, when they were away from the classroom and were attempting to put the theory learnt in the lessons into practice in their homework. In fact, being able to assess their work and answer their questions informally demonstrably increased their confidence in the subject and helped to secure their knowledge.
Two further aspects I would like to mention are the democratisation and personalisation of the learning experience. Firstly, through the use of a microblogging platform such as Edmodo, all students are given the opportunity to interact with the teacher outside any perceived pressures and constraints which may be present in the classroom. This levelled the playing field for those students who were less ready to shout out in lessons, feared ridicule or were, simply, less willing to participate in the open forum of a classroom.
Secondly, using microblogging in this way resulted in a more personalised experience for students, who felt individually supported by their teacher and, on occasion, also their peers. Personalisation also came in the form of being able to receive updates, reminders and notices from the classroom in their own computers or mobile devices which could be addressed to the group or to individual students. Teaching and learning thus became connected beyond the constrains of the school timetable.
Despite these apparent advantages, I often detect a strong sense of scepticism among some of my colleagues who see the implementation of tools such as Edmodo as a capitulation to what they perceive as a lack of discipline, absence of self-control and preference for immediacy among the current generation of students. Students want everything now, instantly.
Upon further consideration, however, this appears hardly surprising, particularly given that on the internet, for better or for worse, everything is just a click away, allowing them to follow links where their interest takes them, pursuing multidimensional threads of information, often leading to learning outcomes that bear little resemblance to the original objectives, that is, the reason for the first click.
This, which is often perceived as a lack of focus rather than a new, perhaps better way to synthesise information and therefore acquire knowledge, does go some way to explain why our generation of students struggle to write essays under controlled conditions using pens and paper. It simply is not how they do things anymore, yet we still insist on assessing their work as ours was assessed and teaching them how we were taught. Understanding this might lead to the realisation that classroom pedagogy needs to be transformed and that we cannot continue teaching the way we want to teach, but rather the way our students want to learn.
My own view is that educators need to wake up to the needs and expectations of our students and reach a mutually acceptable compromise which would exploit the skills our students already possess whilst safeguarding our pedagogical principles, without caving into a teenager’s natural propensity to instant gratification and superficiality. These are traits, lest we forget, that have been found in teenagers since time immemorial, and not just among the current, often unfavourably portrayed and unfairly misrepresented generation.
Perhaps what is familiar to our students feels threatening to teachers, given that we prefer to stay in control and we do not like our students being one step ahead of us. Perhaps we fear that we would not be able to control them in their territory: online.
Yet we cannot deny that the internet has undergone a revolution in terms of the services and possibilities it offers. It is no longer a static repository of information, in which information flowed one way from the source to the recipient. Information nowadays flows both ways, as more and more websites encourage or even rely on two-way communication and the creation and sharing of content.
It is clear that better communication between school and home, between teachers and students is, not only desirable, but also essential in a world in which technology is continually discovering and developing new, exciting and useful ways of improving communication between people. In a sense, our students have tasted the proverbial honey and the move towards this type of social interaction in the field of education is, in my view, inexorable. Educators would be unwise not to take advantage of their students’ willingness to communicate and their desire to participate via this medium.